Mont Blanc Tunnel fire (partially found CCTV footage of road tunnel disaster; 1999)

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Montblancfire1.jpg

The aftermath of the disaster. The lorry that caused the inferno is at the front of these remains.

Status: Partially Found

On 24th March, 1999, a Volvo lorry travelling from France to Italy stopped and burst into flames midway through the Mont Blanc Tunnel. The resulting fire and smoke generated from it led to the deaths of 39 people behind the lorry, including one firefighter, and is considered the worst road tunnel fire ever. The disaster led to heavy criticism of the Mont Blanc tunnel's systems, including the CCTV cameras, which not only were criticised as being inadequate for capturing useful footage, but led to decisions from tunnel operators that contributed to the disaster.

Background[edit | edit source]

At around 10:46 CET, a Volvo lorry driven by Gilbert Degrave entered the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Not long into its journey through the tunnel, other drivers passing the lorry on the opposite side noticed that white smoke was coming out of the cabin and began to flash their vehicles' headlights to warn its driver. It is unknown exactly what caused the Volvo to catch fire, although experiments did prove that a carelessly discarded cigarette could have entered the lorry's airfilter and cause both that and the engine to catch fire.[1] Despite this, the CCTV cameras, which had been in operation since 1990, did not pick up this early warning sign.[2] At about 10:53, Degrave decided to stop about 6km into the tunnel, with the intent to grab a fire extinguisher and put out the blaze. Suddenly, the lorry erupted into flames, forcing Degrave to retreat, and run towards the Italian side of the tunnel.

A minute after the lorry burst into flames, a driver raised the alarm from refuge 22. Tunnel operators from the Italian and French sides were able to communicate with each other following this; beforehand, only the French side had known there was an issue thanks to smoke detector alarms that were triggered a few minutes before the explosion, with the Italian ones having been turned off due to many false positives. Both sides could see the smoke from the video surveillance footage, but such was the inadequacy of the cameras that they were unable to locate its source, as smoke had completely covered the burning lorry. Nevertheless, the resulting discussion led to the operators turning on the fire alarm and prevented any more vehicles from entering the tunnel. By that point, 50 people, 38 of them on the French side, were in the tunnel.[3]

The Disaster[edit | edit source]

Over the next few minutes, as the fire continued to rage, smoke began to cover almost half a km of the French side of the tunnel. During this time period, drivers from both ends attempted to turn around. An operator from the Italian control room noticed these vehicles on the CCTV footage, and utilised the tunnel's ventilation system to pump in fresh air in an attempt to aid their escape. This proved to be a fatal mistake; already, the airflow of the tunnel was from the Italian to the French side, because of the weather effects that day.[4] The pumped air only fed the fire, resulting in the smoke traveling even faster across the tunnel and thus quickly depleting any oxygen needed for the vehicles to function.[5] Not long after this, the smoke's density meant that no further footage was useful; France's then-Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement criticised the cameras, claiming they were not up to the task of detecting and providing adequate footage of the fire.[6] However, the road tunnel operators insisted the cameras were working efficiently.[7]

Ultimately, because the smoke was travelling slowly towards the Italian side, it allowed everyone from that side to survive, including Degrave. However, nobody on the French side had a chance to be rescued, because the smoke contained both carbon monoxide and cyanide, resulting in most either perishing in their vehicles or being overcome by toxic fumes after trying to flee by foot. Firefighters entered the tunnel from both ends, but could not tackle the blaze, primarily due to the dense smoke and exploding shrapnel. One French fireman died after having been overcome by the tunnel's fumes.[8]

In addition, Pierlucio Tinazzi, a security guard for tunnel, had also entered the tunnel via his BMW K75 motorbike on the French side a few minutes earlier, with some stating he was trying to reach the burning lorry. He encountered an unconscious French lorry driver, and decided to place him into one of the fire refuges. He among others who had entered the refuges perished, because the fire doors were not strong enough to hold back fire for more than four hours, with this inferno lasting 53 and reached temperatures of 1,000°C due to the various lorries' combustible loads, including margarine.[9] All that remained were the melted remnants of his bike.[10] Tinazzi is now deemed a hero for his attempt to save people from the French side.[11]

By 11:30, the smoke billowed out of the French entrance. The inferno itself caused significant damage, including destroying the wires that led to the tunnel's lights failing, melting the asphalt, and causing some parts of the tunnel's ceiling and walls to collapse.[12] It took five days for the tunnel to cool down enough for repair work to begin. For their roles in the disaster, Gérard Roncold's the tunnel's head of security, received six months in prison, whereas nine other people, including Degrave, received suspended sentences ranging from four months to two-years, as well as fines for their roles in the disaster.[13] Numerous safety measures were inserted since the tunnel finally reopened on 9th March, 2002;[14] among them included 157 cameras that can instantly detect any road anomalies, allowing appropriate safety measures to be undertaken.[15] No serious incident has occurred in the Mont Blanc tunnel since.

Availability[edit | edit source]

Some CCTV footage was included in the 2012 French documentary L'incendie du Tunnel du Mont Blanc (The Fire in the Mont Blanc Tunnel), per permission from the French courts. Among clips include a lorry stopping before it jumpcuts to the area being completely on fire; an emergency van entering the darkness caused by the black smoke; and various instances where the flames and smoke made it impossible to see anything of interest from the cameras. However, key moments such as the lorry exploding, and the vehicles attempting to turn around that led to the fatal decision to pump fresh air into the tunnel, were not included in the documentary.

Nevertheless, the fact the documentary stated it had received permission to showcase the footage indicates that the French court system does indeed hold the uncut CCTV tapes of the disaster. However, considering that the disaster has already been explained, and out of respect to the victims' relatives, it is unlikely that the full tapes will see any official release.

Images[edit | edit source]

External Link[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. IRC Risk and Safety discussing theories on what caused the Volvo lorry to catch fire, including the discarded cigarette theory. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  2. Independent article noting how the CCTV cameras and operators did not pick up an early warning sign. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  3. Wired article detailing how the disaster occurred. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  4. Archived University of Manchester report into the disaster noting the weather effects that affected the airflow of the tunnel. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  5. Mosen presentation regarding the disaster, noting the pumped air that contributed to the disaster. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  6. BBC News article reporting on Jean-Pierre Chevenement's criticisms of the CCTV cameras. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  7. BBC News article containing a section where the road tunnel operators insisted the surveillance cameras and other systems were working efficiently. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  8. Guardian article reporting on the death of the French fireman. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  9. New York Times article reporting on Pierlucio Tinazzi's heroic attempts to save people during the disaster, and how the fire doors' inadequacy and intense temperatures and smoke claimed his life. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  10. The Italian Junkyard providing photos and accounts of the disaster, including Tinazzi's melted bike.
  11. Columbia Journalism Review article reporting on Pierlucio Tinazzi's heroic attempts to save people during the disaster. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  12. Independent article noting the damage the tunnel suffered, including the lining. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  13. DW reporting on the sentences of those involved in the disaster. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  14. BBC News article reporting on the tunnel's re-opening. Retrieved 25 Oct '21
  15. Tunnel Business Magazine reporting on the security equipment control system incorporated into the tunnel in February 2017, including 157 cameras. Retrieved 25 Oct '21